Family Tree as Phenomenon
A CultureMap®
by Nicholas DeRenzo
Published on 3/14/14

Once akin to niche diversions such as macramé or stamp collecting, genealogy has become America’s fastest-growing hobby, second in popularity only to gardening. (It’s also the internet’s second most searched topic, after pornography.) For Mormons, ancestry is a mission to find more souls to convert. For African Americans, it’s a means of crafting an identity from a broken past. And for Twilight fans, it can even mean validating vampire Edward Cullen’s royal bloodlines.

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to  Mormonism

For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, tracing one’s heritage is less a hobby than a mission. Just as they strike out two-by-two to far-flung countries, Mormons also dive into the past to find potential converts—in colonial America, Renaissance Italy, even medieval England. A core Mormon belief is that the family unit is eternal and that unbaptized ancestors can be posthumously baptized to extend a family’s spiritual bonds. As a result, Mormons dominate the ancestry industry, with Utah the symbolic heart of the family-tree forest. The city of Provo, Utah, is home to (though it’s not officially affiliated with the church), while Salt Lake City houses the biggest genealogical library on earth. And tucked away in the Wasatch Range, behind 14-ton doors, is the world’s largest collection of genealogical records, the Granite Mountain Records Vault. Built to withstand nuclear attack, the archives contain 3.5 billion images, with 2.4 million rolls of microfilm currently being digitized for free public viewing at Here’s hoping these billions of dead souls are more receptive to conversion than many of the living ones Mormons encounter on their doorbell-ringing missions.

to  Twilight  (Stephenie Meyer | novel series | 2005–2008)

You could say British actor Robert Pattinson was born to play the brooding vampire hero Edward Cullen in the Twilight films. In 2010 researchers at claimed Pattinson is distantly related to Vlad III, the Transylvania-born 15th-century prince of Wallachia (in modern-day Romania) whose bloodthirsty reputation gave him the nickname Vlad the Impaler. Though he was more of a sadistic tyrant than a suave undead nobleman, Vlad still managed to inspire Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, the first in a long line of dangerously sexy fictional vampires leading right down to Cullen. According to the researchers’ findings, the bloodlines of Pattinson and Vlad cross through the British royal family: Pattinson is a distant cousin of Princes William and Harry, who themselves are distant nephews of Vlad. (Most tween girls could have told you a man as perfect as Pattinson had to be a royal.) Ironically, Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight books, is also reputedly related to the princes, which could make Vlad one of her ancestors as well. If only Cullen’s romantic rival, werewolf Jacob Black (played by Taylor Lautner in the films), had been distantly related to vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing—he may have gotten the girl.

to  Henry Louis Gates Jr.  (b. 1950 | American scholar)

For most African Americans tracing their family tree, a centuries-long rift exists in the records because of families being violently torn apart and slaves recorded as property. Literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. tackled this head-on with two PBS specials, African American Lives (2006) and African American Lives 2 (2008), in which he helps black celebrities, such as Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou, delineate their genealogical histories. When Gates reaches a roadblock with archival records, he turns to DNA testing, often with surprising results: When researching his own heritage, for example, Gates discovered he is actually 50 percent European and can trace his roots back to the fifth-century Irish king Niall of the Nine Hostages. Gates continued his celebrity genealogy work with more PBS shows, Faces of America With Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (2010) and Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (2012). He also cofounded AfricanDNA, creating a way for African Americans to determine their genetic makeup. The results are often black-and-white—though not always in the percentage participants expect.

to  Twilight  (Stephenie Meyer | novel series | 2005–2008)

Author Stephenie Meyer concedes that her Mormon faith bled profusely into the Twilight saga. This may explain why critics decry the series as a pro-chastity parable, in which vampire Edward Cullen and mere mortal Bella Swan spend entire novels sighing, longing and waiting for the symbolic deflowering bite. (In Meyer’s most convincing bid for abstinence, their relationship culminates in a particularly gruesome vampire birthing.) But it’s not just the book’s sex-negativity that reeks of Mormonism; nearly every character is a stand-in for a figure in Mormon history and theology. Take, for example, the villainous Volturi, an ancient Italian coven of vampire “royalty” that bears a kind of undead resemblance to the Vatican. (Remember that Mormonism founder Joseph Smith despised the Catholic Church.) Cullen’s glittering physical descriptions suggest Moroni, a Mormon prophet who was resurrected as an angel. And werewolf Jacob Black and his fellow Quileute tribe members may be modern-day Lamanites, Native Americans who, according to the Book of Mormon, are descended from Israelites (in the Twilight books many tribe members have Hebrew names, such as Jacob, Rebecca and Sam). Had Bella coopted a different historical tenet of Mormonism—polygamy—she could have satisfied both Team Edward and Team Jacob.

to  The Holocaust  (1933–1945)

Aside from being Jewish writers who died at the hands of ideological enemies, what do Holocaust victim Anne Frank and slain American journalist Daniel Pearl have in common? They’re both converts to Mormonism, thanks to posthumous baptism. This controversial rite is generally reserved for extended family members. But the Mormon Church came under fire in 1995 when it baptized 380,000 Jewish Holocaust victims. Church leaders promised to halt the practice, but that didn’t stop some members from going rogue. In 2011, nine years after he was murdered by Al Qaeda in Pakistan, journalist Daniel Pearl was baptized in Idaho, and in 2012 Anne Frank received the rite (for at least the 10th time) in the Dominican Republic. When Jewish groups expressed outrage, the church issued a statement reiterating that it would not posthumously baptize “unauthorized groups,” such as celebrities and Holocaust victims—though they were quick to add that the ceremonies had been conducted in a spirit of inclusiveness and that the souls always had the right to reject the offer. Jewish leaders responded by reiterating their own policy: As offensive as the baptisms were symbolically, they were absolutely meaningless.